Canoe Team’s Record Quest Comes Up Short

The Great Mississippi River Canoe Race, with two teams vying to set a new speed record for canoeing the mighty river, came to an unexpected end in the overnight hours May 20 when team Mississippi Speed Record’s boat sank near Reserve, La., with less than 140 miles to go.

Team Mississippi Speed Record (MSR), comprised of Scott Miller, Joel Ford, Perry Whitaker and Adam Macht, was the second team to paddle down the river, following MMZero’s record-breaking trip earlier in May.

MMZero, made up of father-daughter duo KJ Millhone and Casey Millhone, Bobby Johnson and Rod Price, finished their 2,300-mile journey down the river on May 10. They set a new world record, canoeing the length of the Mississippi River in just 17 days and 20 hours, besting the previous record of 18 days, 4 hours and 51 minutes.

But for the next 10 days, it seemed MMZero’s record would be short-lived, with Team MSR spending much of its journey down the river well ahead of MMZero’s pace. Team MSR was a couple hours ahead of MMZero’s pace with just 140 miles to go.

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But as Team MSR neared Reserve, La., weather conditions on the river deteriorated in a major way, with the team paddling into 30-knot winds and 4-foot seas.

“We were right on the knife edge of the boat filling with water much of the time and not able to go the speeds we would ideally go, as we fought this ferocious southeast headwind,” Miller said in a video posted to the MSR Facebook page.

Around midnight, the team changed paddling positions, with Miller shifting to the stern and Whitaker moving to the bow.

“Almost right away, we were facing huge waves, with massive ocean liners on one side of us and barges on the other,” Miller said. “Just trying to keep the canoe open side up, just barely. And waves coming over the sides, and hitting and battering us. And me thinking this is just not fun anymore.”

Whitaker called for the team’s support boat to maneuver alongside the canoe, fearing the worst. Then, as the support boat drew near, water began spilling over the bow of the canoe, and it began to go under. Team MSR flung themselves onto the support boat, with Whitaker doing his best to hang on to their 23-foot canoe.

“I had a firm grip on the safety boat, and I struggled to hold on to the canoe as long as I could, until the current took her down,” Whitaker wrote on the team’s Facebook page. 

With the canoe gone and the race over, the team maneuvered the support boat to a sandbar for the night, then motored down to the Bonnet Carré boat launch the next morning.

“I had, at the very least, two goals for this trip,” Miller said. “One, to set the record. Number two, to have a really good time. I think everybody had a really good time. I know I did. It was an absolutely epic adventure, far more harrowing and far more challenging than I ever would have guessed. The conditions were consistently punishing.”

With Team MSR falling just short, MMZero now has a firm grip on the Guinness world record. It’s the second time the elder Millhone has held the record. His previous record, set in 1980 with Steve Eckelkamp, was 35 days, 11 hours and 27 minutes, but that record only stood four years.

Already with plenty of perspective on Mississippi River canoeing records, KJ Millhone said the effort is about so much more than time and rank.

“Once you have a world record, you realize they’re not worth anything,” KJ Millhone told a Minnesota new station. “But there’s enormous value to the skills and the knowledge and the persistence and the strength and, you know, everything that you learn in the pursuit of those things.”